Q&A: Claire Perry, Minister of State for Climate Change and Industry

The Climate Change Minister answers questions on coal and the energy sources that can replace it

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

At this year’s COP23 summit, the UK and Canada, launched the Powering Past Coal Alliance – an international commitment to drop unabated coal as a power source.

Why is it vital that the world stops using unabated coal for power?

Unabated coal is the dirtiest, most polluting way of generating electricity and there is an urgent need for nations to stop using it. Replacing it with cleaner technologies will significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, improve the health of our communities, and benefit generations to come. The UK is a world leader in promoting clean growth and has reduced emissions on a per-person basis faster than any other G7 nation. We want to share the benefits around the world and want to help other countries do the same.

What has the UK committed to in forming Powering Past Coal?

Our ambition is to lead the rest of the world in committing to end unabated coal power. Through the declaration, the UK has committed to taking action such as setting coal phase-out targets, committing to no further investments in coal-fired electricity here or abroad, and supporting clean power through government policies. We are committed to supporting the phase-out of coal through climate finance and technical assistance, aiding other partners in the development of clean energy plans and targets. 

Which power sources do you want the UK to move to as it replaces coal? 

The Clean Growth Strategy sets out our ambition to create a diverse range of power that is secure, affordable and clean. This means developing low-carbon sources of electricity, upgrading our system so that it is smarter and more flexible, and taking advantage of innovation, such as energy storage. There is no magic bullet. As we’ve seen with offshore wind, the approach of allowing technologies to compete with one another drives down costs for consumers and has made the UK a global leader in the sector. On Monday we will publish our Industrial Strategy setting out how we will help young people develop the skills to do the high-paid, high-skilled jobs of the future. It will propel Britain to global leadership of industries including clean energy.

Bioenergy accounted for 71 per cent of renewable energy in the UK in 2015, and many coal-fired power stations are converting to biomass. In February, a Chatham House report found that burning wood pellets can lead to higher emissions than coal when comparing technologies of similar ages. The World Wildlife Fund has said that bioenergy “only makes sense when using waste, not wood” – but the UK imports millions of tonnes of wood from the US and Canada. Is biomass green? 

Biomass plays an important role in the energy mix – it provides a cost-effective and transitional means of decarbonising the electricity grid, replacing coal used in UK power plants. We have strict criteria in place for biomass power plants in the UK, to ensure that we protect biodiversity, the environment, water quality and ensure sustainable harvesting. 

The campaign group Biofuelwatch found that levels of particulates from Drax, the UK’s largest biomass power station, were equivalent to three million diesel cars. Is biomass clean? 

The Environment Agency imposes robust conditions upon power stations to ensure that they do not put the environment or communities at risk. The company must carry out monitoring for particulates as part of their day-to-day operations, and officers regulate the site closely to ensure that it complies with the requirements of the permit. Drax is currently fully compliant with its permit, which specifies conditions such as limits for emissions to air. 

Will Brexit negatively impact the UK’s ability to meet climate change targets? 

Brexit will not affect the UK’s emissions reductions, as our domestic legislation is more ambitious than targets we have been set by the EU. Whatever the nature of the future UK-EU relationship, the UK will remain committed to international efforts to tackle climate change, and working closely with the EU will remain very important. We are leaving the EU but we are not leaving Europe. We want to continue to be reliable partners, willing allies and close friends with European countries. This includes our relationship with the EU on climate change.

What’s the next target fuel to reduce in UK power production? 

The UK has shown that tackling climate change and growing the economy, can, and should, go hand in hand. Since 1990, we have cut emissions by more than 40 per cent while our economy has grown by two thirds. Now we want to help other countries do the same. The Clean Growth Strategy sets out a number of pathways for the UK to reduce its carbon emissions in the power sector. As the prices of renewable technologies fall, we will continue to ensure that Britain has the diverse and reliable energy mix it needs while continuing to prosper.

Does the UK rely too much on gas? 

No – it provides the flexibility and reliability we need. The National Grid estimates that gas demand is not expected to rise but it is still expected to be an important part of the energy mix in the next two decades, accounting for at least two thirds of current demand.

Is there one technology that you see as being really transformative in the UK’s energy production? 

We expect to see a mix of technologies in the future, including gas, nuclear and renewables. At present, nearly half of all our electricity is generated from low-carbon sources such as offshore wind, solar, biomass and nuclear. Our Clean Growth Strategy sets out a pathway for 2032, in which 85 per cent of energy will come from clean sources. We are also ensuring that energy supplies are reliable and there is always enough electricity to keep the lights on. We have introduced a Capacity Market where companies sell their electricity capacity so that as we phase out unabated coal power, there is no impact on the reliability of our electricity supplies.

Is better energy consumption as important as better production?

We need to reduce the emissions created by heating our homes and businesses, which account for almost a third of UK emissions. If done correctly, cutting emissions in these areas can benefit us all through reduced energy bills, which will improve the UK’s productivity, and improved air quality, while the innovation and investment required to drive these emissions down can create more jobs and more export opportunities.

Will Dunn edits the New Statesman's regular policy supplement, Spotlight.